Thursday, 28 April 2016

Heroes and Villains; the Oppressors and the Oppressed

I’m not sure when it happened – perhaps during the Enlightenment or the French Revolution or at the time of Marx and Engels – but, at some point, a narrative began to be imposed on history. Rather than seeing it as an endless muddle (sometimes very good, sometimes very bad) history became a story with a beginning and an end and that end was to be a happy one, if only those who stood in the way of progress would move aside. Those who stood in the way, of course, became the villains. There are many provenances and models for this kind of thinking. First of all there was a Christian eschatology that foresaw the end of time, then there was the 'Whig interpretation of history' that saw the world approaching a zenith of liberal enlightenment, and finally, the Marxist-Leninist narrative that saw history coming to a happy end for the workers. These narratives tended to see history as being composed of the saved and the damned, the oppressors and the oppressed,the reformers and the conservatives, the workers and the bosses - in other words, the heroes and the villains. In this sense politics by numbers or binary politics were born. You were either part of the solution or you were part of the problem. In spite of this, of course, we had the Reign of Terror, the absence to date of the Last Judgement and, in the case of Marx and Engels, a culmination, not in a happy ending, but in Joseph Stalin, Mao Tze Dung and Pol Pot.

Hannah Arendt, after the Second World War spoke of the ‘banality of evil’, recognizing that the nice Mozart-loving Nazi next door or, to bring it up to date, the urbane and plausible paedophile working in the school down the road, were not that far away from all of us. For all of us contain the seeds of evil and those seeds are mixed in with much which is good. Because of this, in the European centuries that preceded those that I have cited above, the tempering dictum came from the New Testament – “Judge not lest ye be judged”. Largely - of course there are always exceptions when civilisation falters - this, and the legal systems that are based on it, curtailed the excesses of the lynch mobs.

In modern times such checks and balances seem to be going by the wayside and, in the public forum, especially, the manichean or black and white mindset prevails more and more. We now, in many spheres, give ourselves permission to see in binary. We now happily brand those who have failed in some wise, or those whom we oppose, as the blackest-hearted villains whilst cheerfully taking it for granted that we are the whitest and most noble crusaders for the good. We, thus, conveniently array ourselves in pristine moral clothing.

What does this mean in practice? It means that when an institution fails in some way it is pilloried. Its agents become villains of the darkest hue and it is obliged to fall in step with the choreography of public apology, promises to ‘learn from mistakes and to put strategies in place’ that, it is assumed, will lead to the sunny uplands of perfection (attainable in a Northern town near you in the near future). Of course, no one believes this and the fallacy is swiftly proved by the next and inevitable debacle.

We have now seen this repeatedly, especially with our Police Forces. The Police are burdened, by definition, with taking executive action in the muddle of history and, of course, they often get it wrong and, of course, they often behave very badly in trying to avoid exculpation. In modern times the result is that they become out and out villains. This is the opposite, of course, of what they are supposed to be. It is the binary approach that forces them into this role because the binary approach cannot cope with shades of right and wrong; with nuance. The Police aren’t perfect so they must be sooty black. We fail to notice that the Police are us, and that, if we continue to treat them this way, no one will want to be a Policeman or woman. Perhaps we comfort ourselves with the belief that this is not important believing that having effective forces of law and order in place is of little importance?

This translates also to governmental politics. I don’t particularly hold a candle for our current government. They are clearly bumbling, venal and often incompetent. But to read the vituperation with which the left-wing opposition (perhaps because the current opposition is close to the hard-left) defines them you might be forgiven for thinking you were living under the most evil of totalitarian regimes and forget altogether your gratitude that we live in fairly moderate and reasonable times – the best, perhaps, that us humans have a right to expect given our shabby natures.

Of course, binary politics has its attractions. It simplifies things and makes our lives as easy as painting by numbers. Adolescents, as they first come alongside the political world find this sort of thing attractive (for adolescents like to be heroes) and this is evidenced by the dreadful politics taking place in our universities. This approach stumbles, of course when things get more complicated, when, for example we notice that those we have elevated to the ranks of the oppressed and whose cause we champion so admirably and so boldly, show themselves also to be oppressors. The binary laptop simply fails to compute when it is discovered that oppressed muslims have been oppressing women in egregious ways for example. The coding fails. At this point we are forced away from a binary processing model and back on a more human, more subtle, perhaps more intelligent approach to the world we live in.

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